Yollo. Ollo. Ello. Hello. Yes, I'm losing it but only slightly. I promise to be better after this weekend. I hope you're liking the story and questions are starting to fill your mind. Not confusing ones, the good kind. The kind that make you want to read more.
As promised, another chapter. Finally, we're getting closer to the Washer Woman and her big reveal. Hopefully big. LOL. Enjoy!
Curious and maybe a little angry that Dacian left, I try the door. As soon as I clutch the handle, the plant on the shelf comes to life. The leaves flap, and two in the center part like a mouth opening. High-pitched squawking blasts throughout the cottage.
I cover my ears and cringe. The room darkens back to its dismal, grungy appearance.
"I’m sorry," I shout over the squawking, apologizing to the plant and the cottage. "I didn't know. I'm sorry."
I back up across the room and huddle in the corner, my hands still pressed to my ears.
The plant finally calms down. The leaves fall, curving in a natural way.
Slowly, I straighten and lower my hands from my ears. Ahh. The silence.
Deciding never to do that again, I take slow steps to the chair and ease onto the lumpy cushion. The title on the book twinkles in gold. The Royal Family. Does the cottage want me to read it? The book is the only constant in this ever-changing space. With nothing else to do but wait for Dacian to return, I pull the heavy book onto my lap and begin reading.
The story is about the monarchy that ended a century ago. I learned about it in history lessons. Queen Alys and her sister Princess Bretta were rare beauties, though different in every way. Alys was fair skinned with strawberry blond hair, which is common among our people. Bretta's skin was olive and her hair as dark as night. Their personalities were opposites too. While Alys was kind and gentle, Bretta was jealous and hot-tempered.
Tired of being second to her sister, Bretta sought a Mystic who had been exiled from the village by the late king for practicing dark magic. She made a deal with him, promising to welcome him back to the village as her private Seer if he would curse the queen to lose the throne to Bretta.
The Mystic agreed, but only if the princess made him her Royal Commander, a position Bretta had already promised to her lover. When she countered with the offer of Royal Seer or nothing at all, the Mystic cursed the village instead, causing us all to suffer.
Every Summer Solstice when the Washer Woman rises, it's a harsh reminder of Bretta's betrayal to her sister, the crown, the village, and the scorned Mystic.
Some people believe the Washer Woman is courteous, often choosing elders or the sickly as her victims. I know otherwise. If she were kind, she wouldn't have chosen my mother, a woman whose sole existence was to please and care for her family. There wasn’t a selfish bone in my mother's body. She wasn't ill nor was she old when the Messenger delivered Mother's blood-stained blouse to our manor.
If I had been the one to answer the door, I would have burned the blouse and knocked the Messenger unconscious. Maybe I would’ve kept her prisoner in the barn until the Washer Woman returned to her home under the river.
My muscles clench with a potent mix of anger and guilt. If only I'd been stronger, back then. Wiser.
A thought crosses my mind. I close the book and sit taller in the chair.
I can't change the past, but maybe I can change the future. Fate chose me as Messenger for a reason. Mother always said I was special. Could my destiny be to seek vengeance for my mother's death by destroying the Washer Woman? I've never thought of myself as a violent person, but perhaps I could do it to save my sisters and innocents in the village who are Fated to Die.
No one has ever broken a rule with the Washer Woman and survived, but has anyone tried to destroy her? Is it even possible?
The leaves on the plant point at me, as if it knows what I’m thinking.
Tensing, I wait to see what it does. Release that deafening squawk? Spit poison at me?
The big leaf at the top moves up and down like it's nodding.
I gulp. It can hear my thoughts.
A moment later, the leaves soften to their restful position.
I let out a breath I didn't know I was holding. Such a strange place.
Clearing my mind, I set the book on the table and stand to stretch my stiff legs.
A knock sounds on the door, two quick raps.
I turn away and close my eyes.
The door creaks open and footsteps fall onto the wood floors.
"Dacian?" I ask.
"You're not wearing your blindfold," he says, shuffling closer to me.
"Should I be?"
"You turned around. You're learning. Whether you are ready to face my mother remains to be seen. We are out of time to train you, and you cannot wear the mask in her presence."
I lift my head but keep my eyes closed. "Why is that? So I'm more likely to break a rule?"
"Are your eyes closed?" he asks instea, spuring my frustration.
I smash my lips together and give a curt nod.
"Good. Keep them closed. I'm coming around to the front of you."
A shadow blocks the small amount of light shining behind my closed eyelids. The scent of cloves hits me next. I lift my face to where his would be before realizing what I’m doing.
Hands brush my long hair behind my shoulders. "Do you never wear your hair up?"
"Does it bother you down?" I ask, hopeful. It'd be nice to have something over him since he has so many things over me.
"No." His voice is soft. "If it were up, I couldn't enjoy the pale shade and soft curls as much as I do. It is lovely, though uncustomary. Proper maidens don't wear their hair down. Not the ones I've known."
My back stiffens. It's a compliment yet it feels like an insult. The kids in the village used to say similar things. Maybe not in such a nice way. Still, it sits wrong with me. That and the idea of him with other maidens. His job is to care for them. It shouldn't bother me. Still, I can't keep from saying, "I bet you've known many maidens in your lifetime." Bitterness laces my tone. Goodness. What is my problem?
"Sadly, yes. More than I care to have known. They didn't deserve to be here any more than you do." He tugs the sleeves to my dress, startling me.
I lean away. "What are you doing?"
"Making sure you look your best for when you greet—"
"Your mother," I mutter chest tight with fear.
"I was going to say the Washer Woman." The skirt to my dress pulls like he's straightening wrinkles.
I almost open my eyes to make sure he gets them all. To ensure I don't, I lift my face to the ceiling.
A puff of air brushes my skin, alerting me that he's close, looming over me. I can feel his gaze on my face. It makes me wonder what his eyes are like. Big? Slanted? Animallike? Human? When I first met him, they glowed silver. Are they like that all the time or do they change? Father says my eyes get darker when I'm angry and that Mother's did the same.
The logical part of my brain says I should be afraid of him, but I’m not. Perhaps, it's his gentle nature or the sadness in his tone. He seems lonely. Is his face, human or not, as expressive as his voice? I may never know.
He tucks a stray hair behind my ear, his thumb brushing my cheek with a touch so light it could have been a butterfly wing. Had he meant to do it, or was it an accident? Why do I care?
My skin tingles where he touched it in the most pleasant way. I stop myself from cupping my cheek. I don't want him to know what I’m thinking or feeling. Helpful or not, I have no reason to trust him, even if he did give me permission to speak.
"Have you ever cared for one of the maidens in your keep?" I'm only asking to get a better feel for his character and see if he's capable of deeper emotions. It's harmless.
"It is my job to care for them while they stay in the cottage."
"But have you ever cared for one of them in here?" In a bold move, I place my hand on his chest, hoping it's near his heart.
He makes a small gasp but doesn't back away or remove my hand.
Light thumping pulses under my palm. My lips part with a smile. "Your heart beats like mine."
"That's because I am human, regardless of the curse. And no. I have not held affection for any of the maidens in my keep. I am forbidden to care for them beyond my duties." Sorrow and frustration ring in his tone, and I find myself wanting to soothe him.
"How are you young? The curse has been around for a century."
His hand slips from mine. "What makes you think I'm young?"
"You sound it, and you sound a little torn. Most people my—our?—age are. It's hard to always do what is expected of you. I imagine it'd be more fun to go where the moment takes you once in a while."
Air brushes my cheek. Is he about to touch my face again?
"I am seventeen," he says to my surprise, not because of his age, but because he answered my question directly. "I have never opened my heart to another. Never courted a girl. Never kissed one." Soft fingers glide across my cheek down to my chin, that pleasant tingle following his touch.
"Would you like to try a kiss on me?" I ask. The offer is to win him over, If I can get him to fall for me, to trust me, I can use him to help me carry out my plan of ridding the village of the curse.
"Yes." He answers in a whisper, the yearning in his voice making him sound grateful for the offer.
My heart flutters against my will. I should not be excited. I should be scared. He says he's human, but that doesn't mean he looks like one. He could be part animal with sharp teeth. I didn't think this through.
I open my mouth to take back the offer.
"But I won't," he says before I can speak. " Not now. Perhaps not ever." Would you like me to repeat the rules before I take you to meet her?" His voice sounds distant like he's moved away.
I nod and try my hardest to focus on his words, but my emotions keep budding in. Why did he refuse my kiss? I've been told I'm pleasing in appearance. Tristin thought so, and I've caught boys in the village staring at me when they think no one is looking. I might be able to tempt one of them to kiss me despite the jaunts, but not Dacian. Not the boy whose soft voice is like a song I long to hear, whose touch is as gentle as a whisper, whose calm demeanor makes me want to scream at him until he's as angry as I am. Maybe then he'll understand how frustrating it is to be held captive, and by someone you can't look at, or how heart-wrenching it is not to tell your family you're all right, when you know they fear the worst.
I don’t even know I’m shaking my head until Dacian's hands cup my cheeks. "You need to rid yourself of that inner fire before meeting her. She will not turn a blind eye to it."
Inner fire. The comment bites at me, bringing back old memories. "My grandmother used to talk about me in that way. She said, I have too much fire in my soul. My mother always disagreed, calling it passion, but Grandmother never saw it that way. To her, I was unacceptable. To the village and Council, I'm unacceptable, yet it's fine for them to ridicule me for my differences, as well as sacrifice innocent maidens to the curse. How is that fair?"
Hurt and anger claw at my throat, threatening to break my composure. I swallow them down.
He lifts my face and his clove scent brushes my nose. I squeeze my lashes tight fighting the urge to open my eyes.
"You are unlike anyone I've ever met," he murmurs. "Strong-willed and fierce. While admirable, both traits will get you killed. Do as I say, and perhaps you will be the first girl to live through this and reclaim her freedom. I'd so hate one as special as you to lose the battle before it even begins."
His words seem genuine. I wish I could believe him.
"I'm not special. If I were, I wouldn't be here." Isn't that what Tristin said?
His hands leave my face. "Have you read the book?"
"Book?" It takes me a second to catch up. "The Royal family. Yes. I did a little. It's nothing I don't already know."
"I promise you there is a lot more in it than what you think you know. Special things a girl with two different colored eyes should want to know."
My head snaps in the direction of the table, my gaze wide on the book.
"Do not move," Dacian says, tone grave. The wood floor creaks with his footsteps.
"What happened?" I whisper.
From a fair distance behind me, he says, "Your eyes are open. That you are unaware of it is most concerning. One mistake, one rule broken, and you will not be the special girl I believe you to be."
From my peripheral, I spy his tall dark form in the corner. So tempting. I force my eyes close and curse myself for the stupid mistake. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be sorry. Be focused. It's time to go."
He's right. I need to be strong, stronger than I've ever had to be, so I can get through this and do what must be done. Fear dances at the edge of my mind, threatening to take over. I breathe through my nerves and harden my emotions the way I do before entering town. I can do this. I must.
Drawing on every ounce of courage inside me, I straighten my spine and say, "Take me to her."